Airtel has created quite a stir with its new Zero marketing platform that allows users to access apps of participating app developers at zero data charges. It looks like a step to compete with a similar platform announced by Facebook-Reliance partnership in the form of Internet.org. Apart from the common marketing strategy, both violate ‘net neutrality’.
Net neutrality may not sound like a familiar term to many and you may also wonder what is wrong if someone wants to offer a service for free, but even if you are not on the internet a lot, it is important for you. By definition, Net neutrality means that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites. But there have been several instances (more on that below) that have already occurred and it would be best to act now.
So it’s probably best to get familiar with ‘net neutrality’ as we, in India, could be hearing more on it in the future. Here’s what you should know.
What is net neutrality?
Firstly, we need to understand what exactly net neutrality is. Net neutrality means Internet that allows everyone to communicate freely. It means a service provider should allow access to all content and applications regardless of the source and no websites or pages should be blocked, as long as they aren’t illegal. It’s like a fixed-telephone line, which is equal to all, and no one gets to decide who you call or what you speak. Another aspect of net neutrality is level playing field on the internet. This means, all websites can co-exist without hampering others. All websites are accessible at the same speed and no particular website of application is favoured. For instance – like electricity, common for all. Net neutrality also means all web sites and content creators are treated equal, and you don’t have to pay extra for faster Internet speed to a particular site/service.
Why should I bother or what will happen if there is no net neutrality?
To put it out straight, if there is no net neutrality, the Internet won’t function as we’ve known it too. It will mean Internet Service Providers (ISP) will be able to charge companies like YouTube or Netflix as they consume more bandwidth, and eventually the load of the extra sum will be pushed to the consumers. Similarly, ISPs can then create slow as well as fast Internet lanes, which will mean all websites cannot be accessed at the same speed and one can do so only on paying an additional sum. For instance, currently, you have a standard data package and access all the content at the same speed, irrespective of whether its an international website or desi. Similarly, ISPs can also charge extra for the free calls you make using services like WhatsApp, Skype and others, and eventually the load of additional payable sum by the OTT players will be pushed onto consumers.
Net Neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination. It is essential for innovation and creating job opportunities. Big companies like Google, Twitter and several others are born out of net neutrality. With increasing Internet penetration in India and given that we are becoming a breeding ground for startups and entrepreneurs, the lack of net neutrality should worry us greatly. Besides, it is very important for freedom of speech, so that one can voice their opinion without the fear of being blocked or banned.
Equal for all! Image: Reuters
How activists have been fighting for it in the west?
Net neutrality isn’t something new and many activists have been battling to achieve it in the west.
In 2010, FCC had passed an order to prevent broadband Internet service providers from blocking or meddling with the traffic on the Web. Known as the ‘Open Internet Order’, it ensured the Internet remained a level playing field for all.
However, in 2014, the court said the FCC lacked the authority to do so and enforce rules. This means, telecom companies who were earlier forced to follow the rules pf net neutrality started adopting unruly ways. This also paved way for ISPs to monitor data on their networks and also allowing governments to ban or block data. Besides banning or blocking data, we also jad the high profile Netflix-Comcast tussle.
Recently, FCC has approved “net neutrality” rules that prevent Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon from slowing or blocking Web traffic or from creating Internet fast lanes that content providers such as Netflix must pay for. European Union member states have also been striving for net neutrality.
No more a thing of the west – Net neutrality in India
Taking the recent events into account, its time net neutrality is imposed in India too.
Since the past couple of years, the instances of Internet censorship in India have increased manifold. In 2011, India adopted the new ‘IT Rules 2011’ that supplemented the IT Act 2000. These rules made it mandatory for Internet intermediaries to remove objectionable content within 36 hours of receiving complaint. But the terms included were vague and open to interpretations. These rules received sharp criticism, but they have prevailed. In 2011, government also drew flak as it asked major sites like Google, Facebook and Yahoo to ‘pre-screen’ content and remove any objectionable, defamatory content from going live.Government requests for banning content has also been on rise over the past couple of years. On the other hand, with the increasing popularity of instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and others, telcos had started making noise against the accelerated adoption of these services. Throughout last year, they’ve have been quite vocal about their dislike for over-the-top (OTT) services, who have been cannibalizing their main revenue streams – calls and SMSes.
There was buzz around a fee being imposed on popular OTT services, but the matter fizzled out soon after TRAI rejected telcos’ proposal to do so. In a bid to make up for the losing revenue, Airtel decided to play evil Santa on Christmas 2014 and announced an extra charge on making VoIP calls. The Twitterati had gone all out condeming Airtel for the act, and the service provider had to soon retract its decision. Net neutrality got yet another blow in India with the recent announcements from Reliance and Airtel.
In India, Facebook has teamed up with Reliance Communications in an effort to bring Internet.org to smartphone as well as feature phone users. But at the Mobile World Congress, telecom service providers such as Vodafone, Airtel and Telenor have made their discomfort clear when it comes to offering free Internet services over expensive telecom networks.
In order to compete with Reliance, Airtel announced Zero marketing platform allowing customers to access apps of participating app developers at zero data charges. Now, you may be wondering what is wrong if someone wants to offer free Internet? Free internet sounds tempting, but you need to be aware that you are only getting free access to services/apps which have struck a deal with the telcos. App developers and services who are flush with funds, will not find it an issue to pay telcos for data charges incurred by users. But this can leave app developers, specially start ups, who cannot afford Airtel or Reliance’s data rates at a definite disadvantage.
In India, the concept of net neutrality doesn’t exist legally. However, ISPs try to moderately not violate any laws. They’ve approached Trai for the losing revenues and are awaiting Trai’s decision on regulation IM app by OTT players. Most decisions here are made by DoT and Trai. However, it would be a good move to get things legally on paper, while Internet access in India is still at its infancy.
Rohit RK Kumar
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